(Reuters) – Saudi Arabia has arrested at least three more women’s rights activists in a widening crackdown just weeks before a ban on women driving is set to end, international rights watchdogs said on Tuesday.
Rights groups last week reported the detention of seven activists, mostly women who previously campaigned for the right to drive and an end to the kingdom’s male guardianship system, which requires women to obtain the consent of a male relative for major decisions.
The government later announced that seven people had been arrested for suspicious contacts with foreign entities and offering financial support to “enemies overseas”, and said authorities would identify others involved.
State-backed media labeled those held as traitors and “agents of embassies”, unnerving diplomats in Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally, with some likening it to repression in neighboring Egypt and saying their governments would privately discuss the matter with Saudi authorities.
“These actions are inconsistent with messages of reform on which Western support for Vision 2030 is based,” one diplomat said, referring to Saudi Arabia’s ambitious social and economic reform agenda. “These actions will have consequences.”
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has courted Western allies to support his reforms. Hundreds of billions of dollars of investments were discussed during his recent trips to the United States and Europe.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said it supported the Saudi reform agenda but was concerned about the arrests. “We support space for civil society and also free speech. But overall, we’re concerned about it and we’re keeping a close eye on it,” she told reporters in Washington.
Amnesty International told Reuters that seven women and two men were now being held, in addition to “one unidentified activist”. Human Rights Watch reported the same total. One activist said seven women and four men were being held in total.
“Amnesty International is worried about reports of further arrests of individuals … and we call on the authorities to reveal the whereabouts of these individuals and reveal the charges against them,” said Samah Hadid, Amnesty’s Middle East Director of Campaigns.